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October is Health Literacy Month

Better Communication About Vaccines Can Increase Vaccination Rates and Improve Health Literacy

By Jeanine Limone Draut, Principal, InPraxis Communications

Flu season crept up on me this year, and it dawned on me last week that it was time for my family to get our annual flu shots.

I went to the pediatrician’s website to find out when the flu shot clinic would take place. Buried under the “News” section of the site was “Influenza Vaccine Information.” I clicked on the link, and this is what I found:

For the 2013-2014 Influenza season we are presented with a unique circumstance with respect to 2 different types of inactivated influenza vaccines that are licensed as an intramuscular injection beginning at 6 months of age. For the first time several manufacturers are producing a quadravalent influenza vaccination (2 strains of influenza A and B) that offers protection against an additional influenza B strain than the historical trivalent vaccine…

If I had been at all on the fence about giving my child a flu vaccine this might well have swayed me not to do it, simply because there are a lot of scary words there that I don’t understand. To some people it might even feel like the writer is being dishonest, hiding something behind all those words.

Professionals sometimes believe that using technical language will make us sound more credible. But it often has the opposite effect, arousing suspicion or provoking insecurity and shame. In the wild marketplace of ideas that competes daily for our attention, messages like these will lose. Messages that make the most intuitive sense and provoke feelings of security and self-efficacy are the ones that win the day.

But science doesn’t always make intuitive sense. That’s the beauty of science (it helps us see things that we can’t figure out on our own) and its challenge (sometimes the discoveries seem unbelievable). And many people don’t have the skills to understand what makes good science. On October 8, the OECD released the results of its Survey of Adult Skills, revealing that many adults in the United States have trouble with literacy and numeracy – the very skills necessary to understand the science behind immunizations and the risks associated with it.

Despite this lack of understanding, many people trust that immunizations work simply because their doctors tell them it is so. But we can’t take for granted that people will continue to trust the experts, or that the science will always speak for itself.

If we want better immunization rates, we need to meet the information needs of our audience. We need to meet their cognitive needs by putting our messages into words they can understand. We also need to address their emotions about the issue, understanding that while people analyze information cognitively, in the end we often make decisions based on how it feels.

October is health literacy month, a good time to try out some new ways to communicate about vaccines:

  • ŸExplain vaccination in plain language. Immunizations are counter-intuitive if you don’t understand why they work. Making complex ideas accessible is not easy, but it is worth the effort. Try using metaphors. (For example: An immunization is like a practice drill for your body to respond to intruders. The intruders are pretending, so they will not hurt the body like real intruders. But they help your body recognize what the bad intruders look like).
  • ŸBe ready to explain the concept of risk as it applies to vaccination. People don’t often know how to weigh risks and benefits. Make sure you understand what the numbers mean so you can explain them. Use visuals if possible. For more information, see Helen Osborne’s podcast interview with Dr. Zikmund-Fisher about communicating risk. For more in-depth information, see the FDA’s Communicating Risks and Benefits: An Evidence-Based User’s Guide.
  • Be proactive in communicating how and where to get vaccines, especially seasonal ones like the flu vaccine.Ÿ
  • Invite questions. When you are talking with parents about vaccines for the first time, normalize their need to ask questions with phrases like, “Most parents have questions for me about vaccines. What are yours?”

These are just a few of the ways to make information about vaccinations accessible while increasing science literacy. What other ideas do you have for making immunization information accessible during Health Literacy Month and throughout the year? Tweet us your ideas at @ImmunizeCOKids!

JeanineLimoneDrautJeanine Limone Draut has a passion for giving people access to the information they need through plain language writing and and creative teaching strategies. As Principal of InPraxis Communications, she works with government agencies, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations as a writer, instructional designer, training facilitator, and communications consultant. 

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